Now you can 3D print wooden products!

Several years ago, we heard how scientists from Sweden’s Chalmers University had created a 3D-printing medium made from wood fiber. Now, they’ve developed a new method of printing with it, producing solid material with the structure and qualities of natural wood.

The original material took the form of a nanocellulose gel – this means it contained tiny cellulose fibers, which were obtained from wood pulp. And while a variety of objects could conceivably be printed from it, they would lack the porosity, toughness and torsional strength of actual wood.

Recently, however, the researchers added a new ingredient: hemicellulose, which is a natural component of plant cells. This boosted the strength of the gel, acting as a glue to help hold the cellulose fibers together.

Additionally, they digitized the genetic code of natural wood, then used that code to instruct a 3D printer that was printing with the newly-improved gel. As a result, they were able to precisely control the arrangement of the nanofibers during the printing process, creating simple items that were not only made of wood fiber, but that also had the “ultrastructure” of real wood.

It is hoped that the technology could ultimately be used to create everything from packaging to furniture, which would be made of pre-formed parts that didn’t have to be sawn, planed or lathed into the desired shapes. Additionally, because the technology could utilize cellulose obtained from forestry industry waste – or plant-derived cellulose that didn’t even come from wood – it would likely reduce the number of trees that needed to be cut down.

And what’s more, the 3D-printed “wood” could in some cases take the place of less eco-friendly materials such as petroleum-based plastics.

“This is a breakthrough in manufacturing technology,” says Prof. Paul Gatenholm, lead scientist on the project. “It allows us to move beyond the limits of nature, to create new sustainable, green products. It means that those products which today are already forest-based can now be 3D-printed, in a much shorter time.”

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Applied Materials Today.